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Snowpack Buys Time On West’s Water Crisis

Last fall, Colorado River Basin water managers were watching Lake Mead, their largest storage reservoir, drop to record low levels and worrying about the looming possibility of the first shortage declaration on the river that serves New Mexico and six other Western states.

Such a shortage declaration would not have immediately taken any water away from New Mexico. But it would have raised the stakes in a long-term struggle over the supply-demand imbalance on the Colorado.

“That would have really ratcheted up the pressure,” said Estevan López, head of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

Last week, López was among a group of basin water managers gathered in Boulder for a week of water management talks, held under the auspices of the University of Colorado’s Natural Resources Law Center.

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Among the group, you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as the largest snowpack since the 1990s sits waiting to melt in the central and northern Rockies.

It is enough water that the chance of a shortage declaration has been pushed out at least three years and likely longer, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said.

Parched New Mexico won’t see much of that water directly. Most of it fell to the north of the watersheds that feed the San Juan and Rio Grande, New Mexico’s two largest rivers. But we will nevertheless benefit in important ways, López said, as the extra water from this year’s snowpack buys time to work on long-term problems in the Colorado Basin.

The problem for the past decade has been drought on the river system that supplies a significant amount of the water supplies used by seven Western states, including New Mexico.

For us, the San Juan River, a tributary, supplies drinking water to Albuquerque and Santa Fe via the San Juan-Chama project. The San Juan also supplies water to meet the Navajo Nation’s water rights, as well as irrigating farms in the state’s northeastern corner.

The question lingering throughout the conference is how reliable that supply might be in the long run, for us as well as the six other U.S. states and Mexico that also rely on the Southwest’s largest river system.

And if the Colorado gets less reliable – if, in the long run, it has less water to offer even as we keep growing and trying to use more of it – who will take the hit? Whose share of the limited resource will be reduced?

A new federal study released in conjunction with the conference forecast that the Colorado could have 9 percent less water on average by 2050 as a result of climate change, with persistent drought growing more common.

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Without cooperation among the states to share in the resulting shortfalls, we could see a situation where New Mexico and the other states of the Upper Colorado River Basin would suffer the brunt of the shortages, said Doug Kenney, a University of Colorado professor and one of the conference’s organizers.

“Things turn ugly pretty fast here,” Kenney said as he pointed to a graph showing the potential shortfall to New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming because of quirks in the law dividing up the river’s water.

Whether Kenney’s analysis is correct was the subject of much debate.

Suffice it to say smart lawyers disagree on the question – which means that if it is left to the lawyers, the final decision on the water’s allocation could be left to the justices of the United States Supreme Court.

A continuing theme at the conference was a common desire across the basin to avoid settling this problem in court. In his book “Cadillac Desert,” writer Marc Reisner famously described the Colorado as “the most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world.”

But Mike Connor, a former aide to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who now heads the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the “most litigated” title no longer applies. Over the past 15 years, the Colorado River Basin states have negotiated a series of agreements that have solved shortage and overallocation problems collectively, without going to court.

Relative to the big question of how to deal with a river shrunk by drought and climate change, those deals were relatively small – how to reduce California’s overuse of the Colorado’s water, and how Arizona and Utah should share shortages as Lake Mead declines.

Settlement of those issues represented hard negotiations, but the states came to agreement without ending up in court. That represents a model for the future, but the larger problems yet to be solved will be harder, said Pat Mulroy, head of the water authority in Las Vegas, Nev.

“The next steps are going to be even more daunting,” she told conference attendees.

And that is where the real benefit to New Mexico in the giant snowpack lies, López said. “This big snowpack in the basin has bought us some time to work on those issues.”

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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